Kontou and Willburn (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult (Ashgate: Farnham, 2012) 454 pp. Hb £95.00. ISBN: 9780754669128

The Victorian fascination with spiritualism and the occult still sits rather awkwardly within our understanding of an age that consciously defined itself through narratives of scientific, technological and intellectual modernisation. As topics of scholarly investigation they have lingered at the margins of historical research on the nineteenth century, tainted perhaps by our perpetuation of an image of modernity that derives from our Victorian forebears. However, as this collection of essays amply demonstrates, things are changing. Whereas spiritualism and the occult were formerly used to shore up dichotomies between the supernatural and science, fantasy and reality, they are employed here as critical approaches through which to analyse the blurring of such simplistic divides. Roaming across science, technology, religion, politics, literature, popular entertainment and art, this book encourages us to rethink our understanding of those boundaries and the Victorian world they supposedly held in place. As the editors assert in their introduction, ‘spiritualism and the occult provide flexible allegories for many concepts that are distinctly modern’ (1). At the same time, the growing prominence of an empirical mindset meant Victorians demanded physical evidence from the spirit world. Attendees at séances rarely accepted things on blind faith. The spirits obliged, their evolution from relatively modest table rapping in the 1850s to corporeal materialisations in the 1870s accommodated a desire to approach spiritualism through scientific methods. In doing so, scientists sought to either disprove spiritualist phenomena as fraud or annex the supposedly supernatural into an expanded understanding of the natural world.

The book is divided into three broadly themed sections. The first is perhaps the most internally coherent, exploring spiritualism in the context of scientific thought and technological development. Christine Ferguson’s opening reflections on spiritualism and science offers a useful survey of recent literature, points to potential ways in which the relationship between the two could be further explored in the future, and provides important reminders about avoiding monolithic notions of either when investigating their relationship. This interlinks nicely with Richard Noakes’s chapter on the science of spiritualism. As Noakes demonstrates, the problem facing those who may have wanted to erect rigid demarcations between science and spiritualism was that neither side could offer a sufficiently authoritative view to convince the other or, more broadly, the public. The scientists’ case was hindered in part by the struggle between physical scientists and psychologists who did not or would not consider themselves part of the same scientific establishment in the nineteenth century. These opening chapters offer us a view of nineteenth-century scientific authority as both contested by and entangled within the blurred interplay between scientific and occult epistemologies. The chapters by Anthony Enns and Leigh Wilson examine resonances between spiritualism and emerging technologies, their analysis expanding upon the Victorians own appreciation of the parallels between spirit rappings and telegraphy, or the way female operators of writing machines and female mediums both served as channels for transferring information. Of particular note in this section is Jill Galvan’s chapter on spiritualism and the post-human. Galvan cleverly displays the ingenuity with which recent scholars have engaged with spiritualism, not just as a Victorian practice or belief but, in this case, as a concept that can be appropriated to postmodern cultural reflections.

The second section, entitled ‘Occulture: Sex, Politics, Philosophy and Poetics’ offers breadth of scope and conceptual application but in doing so sacrifices something of the previous section’s consistency. While all the essays offer thoughtful, well-informed reflections upon their chosen topics, their potential for expanding the ways in which scholars might read the occult is somewhat constricted by narrowing the focus to studies of specific authors, among them Edward Bulwer Lytton, Edward Carpenter, and William James. Matthew Beaumont’s chapter works hardest to connect occultism to the broader historical context, offering a persuasive exploration of the affinities between socialism and occultism, particularly Theosophy. Yet he too is not above advancing some broad claims based upon the ideas and experiences of just two individuals, the Theosophist and socialist Annie Besant and the poet William Butler Yeats.

The third section, ‘Staging the Victorian Afterlife’, carries the collection to a strong finish. It opens with Tatiana Kontou’s interesting assessment of the way Florence Marryat incorporated sensationalist plot elements in both her popular fictions and spiritualist memoirs. This is followed by Erika White Dyson’s fascinating exploration of the struggle between spirit mediums and stage magicians, each engaged in debunking the other to promote their own authority. In doing so they offered a more public and theatrical echo of the struggles between scientists and spiritualists in the first section. The following two chapters return to the séance room to offer novel perspectives on spiritualism. Mackenzie Bartlett offers an intriguing study of the role of laughter in the séance room, challenging assumptions about the séance as a necessarily sombre affair. This is complimented by Marlene Tromp’s chapter on food in Victorian spiritualism. While Tromp’s argument may not always convince, her essay is yet another good example of the ways in which current scholarship is pushing in innovative and unusual directions. The last three chapters focus on the production of material responses to the spiritual and the intangible. Bridget Bennett considers Henry James’s attempts to restore an element of fear to literary ghost stories after the nineteenth century’s popularisation and secularisation of the supernatural, while Rachel Oberter examines the automatic drawings of Anna Mary Howitt. Sarah Willburn’s concluding chapter on spirit photography boldly rises above the questions of authenticity that fuelled so much debate between scientists and spirit mediums, and instead uses these rather unsettling artefacts to reflect on the Victorians’ temporal relations and fantasies.

Like mediums, many of the essays in this collection make unusual connections between seemingly disparate entities, not just between spirit and material worlds but between historical topics and texts that are rarely brought into conjunction with one another. As such, this companion does far more than simply consolidate current scholarship in the field. It challenges the marginalised cultural status of spiritualism and the occult, and in doing so it makes a convincing case for the way these beliefs and practices haunted a range of discourses in the nineteenth century. If, this book argues, we are to fully appreciate the cultural complexity of Victorian modernisation we must learn to value not just the science but the séance.

Karl Bell, University of Portsmouth